French lessons in a cold climate

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The Independent Online
This current fuss about whether schools should or should not be provided with condom machines takes me right back to my own schooldays. In those days, of course, I do not think you would have found a school in the whole of Britain which openly sold contraceptives, and nor did mine, but mine must have been one of the first schools in Britain to boast a full-time brothel. I often think back with affection and nostalgia to that old school brothel, without which I do not think I would be the piano player I am today.

The school I went to was in far-off Scotland, some 400 miles from home. If it had been a day school, I do not think I would have been able to get there and back each day, but luckily my father decided to send me to an old-fashioned boarding school, run on the twin virtues of Christianity and cruelty.

"Son," he said to me one day, "I have often observed that a home full of children exerts more wear and tear on the parents than it is right to expect any parents to suffer. I therefore intend to send you away to boarding school, and the farther the better. How does Scotland grab you?"

Myself and my weeping mother were about to rejoin that it grabbed neither of us at all, but we knew how furious he grew when people disagreed with him, so I silently agreed to go to this wretched school, making a mental note to send him to an old folk's home as soon as I grew up and I could afford to do so.

In fact, the Scottish school was not a bad establishment as these places go. Almost all the lessons were conducted in English, and bagpipe lessons were not compulsory. The wearing of the kilt was compulsory on Sundays, which stood me in good stead, as I have never since then been tempted to cross-dress or go around in women's clothes.

Most of the boys were not even aware of the existence of the school bordello, which was situated in the nearby village of Duntochty. It was not, of course, for the benefit of the boys. It was solely for the delectation of the younger masters, who might otherwise have been very lonely and unhappy in those far-off and often frozen climes. I would never have come to know about it myself, perhaps, if it had not been for the fact that I was unusually precocious at French.

One night, the geography master, a Mr Ellyot, stopped me.

"Kington," he said, "you're good at French. What does the word sparrow- drop mean?"

"No such word in French, sir," I said.

"None like it?"

"Not very like it. Why not ask Mr Hunter?"

Mr Hunter was the chief French teacher. But, as Mr Ellyot informed me, he was away. So was anyone else who taught French at the school. By an extreme chance, I was the best French speaker on the premises.

"I am going to swear you to extreme secrecy, Kington," said Mr Ellyot. "In Duntochty we have a hostel for ... well, for foreign visitors. There is a new French girl there whom we cannot understand. We need your help."

And thus it was that I met Arlette. She was about 20 years old, and new to Scotland. It was not "sparrow-drop" she was after. It was "sparadrap".

"Il me faut du sparadrap," she told me. "Je me suis coupe le doigt, c'est tout. Mais ces imbeciles ne comprennent pas du tout ce que je leur raconte ..."

"She needs some sticky-plaster," I said. "She has cut her finger. That's all."

I was called back on several occasions to translate, during which I realised that the existence of houses of joy was not entirely limited to the short stories of Guy de Maupassant. In Maupassant, brothels were rather friendly places where the girls had summer outings and Christmas parties, and I have to admit that the same, more or less, was true of the school brothel.

The masters were the only clients, it is true, but I found myself a favoured visitor, as I could not only speak French (and Spanish, a great help to a girl called Luisa from Cordoba), but also played passable barrel-house piano, which was much in demand in the front room. I was rather like a eunuch - a non-sexual being who was welcome for what he could provide, not for what he could demand - and I came to treasure my innocent visits to this shady, discreetly lit oasis.

"Your French and Spanish reports are excellent," said my father one holiday, reading the school report. "But I fear you are not keeping pace in your German studies."

"It is not my fault if the masters show no interest in young German girls, father!" I said indignantly. He did not quite understand what I meant. I felt perhaps it would be unwise to enlighten him.